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Helsinki Commission Releases U.S. Statement on Roma and Sinti at OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

WARSAW, POLAND – The following statement on Roma and Sinti was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:

Roma and Sinti

Statement Delivered by Erika B. Schlager

U.S. Delegation to the

OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

My delegation is encouraged by the increased focus on the plight of Roma in the OSCE context and we commend the Chair-in-Office for convening last week’s conference in Bucharest, which was successful and constructive. As participants at that meeting made abundantly clear, there is much more that both participating States and the OSCE can do to address these problems.

Unfortunately, as the High Commissioner on National Minorities said in his report, “even against the backcloth of a decade blighted by extreme forms of racist intolerance, the phenomenon of prejudice against Roma is singular.”

In a number of OSCE countries, government officials continue to make broad sweeping statements denying that their Romani citizens experience human rights violations, denying that their Romani citizens face rampant discrimination, denying that their Romani citizens have any reason to flee racially motivated violence. In short, these governments deny that there is any legitimate reason their Romani citizens would have to leave the country and seek refuge elsewhere. We welcome the remarks of the representative of the UNHCR regarding Romani statelessness and displacement, which are issues that have long concerned the United States, and I’d like to expand further our discussion of Romani migration.

This is the pattern in recent years: Roma have left various countries in Central Europe, seeking asylum in other countries. Some of the Romani applicants have been found to have a well-founded fear of persecution, and accordingly, been granted asylum. In most instances, the applicants have not been found to have a well-founded fear of persecution and have been returned to their country of origin.

There has been a host of reactions from the governments of the countries of origin – unfortunately, almost all of them unhelpful. Many government officials have used the very fact that some Romani asylum applicants have not been found to have a well-founded fear of persecution to argue that this proves that Roma do not face human rights violations and are merely “economic migrants.” But this argument does not withstand scrutiny.

First of all, the standard for a “well-founded fear of persecution” is a high one. Even when an applicant can prove that his or her human rights have been violated, it may not be enough to meet the “well-founded fear of persecution” test. In other words, while unremedied human rights violations may contribute to a finding that someone has a well-founded fear of persecution, the failure or inability of someone to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution does not prove that Roma do not face human rights violations.

Second, the reality is that there are many Roma – from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and elsewhere – who have met this high standard and who have been granted asylum in some other country. When public officials or newspapers observe that “most Roma have failed to gain asylum,” this phrasing masks the reality that, in fact, hundreds and hundreds of Roma from across Central and Southern Europe have been granted asylum in other countries.

Third, we should examine the concept of “economic migrants” more closely. In the transition from a command- to a market-economy, Roma are among the most vulnerable segments of society. They are typically the first fired and last hired. They face discrimination when they seek jobs and often when they seek job training as well. They are sometimes prevented from moving from one town to another, where they might find work. In countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary, governments have failed to put an end to what is, de facto, a segregated system of education that leave Roma disproportionately undereducated and unprepared for the modern workforce. In short, while many Roma may have economic reasons for moving to a new country, it is ultimately violations of their basic rights, including the right to non-discrimination in labor, housing and education, which has left them so economically marginalized. Such marginalization leaves Romani women especially at risk of other human rights violations, such as being trafficked into prostitution and other slavery like conditions.

I am not, of course, suggesting that all Roma be viewed automatically as having a well-founded fear of persecution and I reject the idea that Roma should be granted a standard of freedom of movement not given to others. The United States is a country whose shores swell with people seeking to enter for many legitimate purposes – as well as for many illegitimate purposes. We respect the necessity of countries to control their borders, to regulate entry onto their territories, and to make the difficult decisions required in reviewing every application for asylum.

But if Roma are to feel secure in their countries of origin, if they are to feel that they and their children have a future in their countries of birth, then we must address the fundamental reasons that Roma are seeking refuge in such extraordinary numbers. Schools must be desegregated; discrimination in employment, housing, education and public places must be punished; and, what is most important, when public leaders are faced with manifestations of racism against Roma, their silence must end. In this regard, I welcome of the statement of the representative of Slovakia regarding the death in police custody of Karol Sendrei and hope the Slovak delegation to the OSCE will keep us informed of developments in the investigation of that death.

Finally, at the outset of this session, our moderator asked us to reflect on the Istanbul Summit document’s proposed action plan. We welcome the direct engagement of the ODIHR on Romani issues especially, but not only, in crisis situations. We believe it would be useful to consider expanding the ODIHR mandate to facilitate monitoring of concerns relating to Roma and would welcome having the Senior Advisor discuss Romani issues at meetings of the Permanent Council. We also believe it is time to give additional support to the ODIHR’s work on Romani issues. This should be manifested through additional funding and staffing, in particular to facilitate the hiring of a project manner.

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